Sarah Baartman Residence (formerly Melodi)

Khoisan heroine, South African symbol of colonial oppression
Birthplace: Eastern Cape

This distinguished heritage would later be the cause of her misfortune.

Born in the fertile Gamtoos River valley, Sarah Baartman is one of our most significant legacies – a symbol of the resilience of women and the tragic consequences of colonialism.

With a Khoi father and San mother, she inherited the ancestral mantle of the first peoples of South Africa.

This distinguished heritage would later be the cause of her misfortune.

Early life

Baartman belonged to the Gonaquasub group of Khoikhoi who herded cattle in the Eastern Cape.

Raised on a colonial farm, she lost her mother at two years old, and later her father in adolescence. At 16, Baartman was forced into slavery following the murder of her fiancé by the Dutch.

Taken to Cape Town as a domestic servant, she was renamed ‘Saartjie’ by her Dutch masters.

‘Hottentot Venus’

In 1810, an employment ‘contract’ was signed between Baartman, British ship surgeon William Dunlop and his partner Hendrik Cezar, brother of the slaver who had bought her.

Baartman would become a domestic servant in England and Ireland – and be exhibited to the public.

She would receive money for these exhibitions and could return home after five years.

Historians doubt the authenticity of this ‘contract’, given that Baartman’s culture did not keep written records or abide by Western laws, and the most obvious – she was illiterate.

Dark times

In England, curious audiences paid money to see Baartman stripped half-naked, and marvelled at her large buttocks and skin colouring.

Caged in a building in Piccadilly, famed for its display of strange and unusual specimens and objects, Baartman became a popular attraction among not only British, but European tourists.

There were, however, strong objections to her inhumane treatment. With anti-slavery sentiment gaining traction in Great Britain, Dunlop and Cezar faced trial for their deeds, but were not punished.

Baartman also gave testimony that she was not being mistreated, although her amended ‘contract’ reflected better working conditions, a larger share of profits and warm clothing.

A life cut short

The young woman would never return to South Africa alive.

In 1814, Baartman was sent to France, where she was exhibited, virtually naked, alongside a baby rhinoceros, and encouraged to perform circus-type tricks.

It was here that she earned the abhorrent nickname, ‘Hottentot Venus’.

Baartman’s final humiliation was undergoing examination by naturalist George Cuvier, who concluded that she was a link between man and animal.

Following her death in 1816, aged 26, she was dissected and then forgotten for years.

Baartman was finally brought home and buried at Hankey in 2002.

We will remember

Melodi students felt that Baartman’s life was a resounding example of resilience and the historical oppression of women – a story that should never be forgotten.